By Dennis Kempton
Martha Graham, that icon of dance culture, once said, “Think of the magic of the foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It’s a miracle and the dance is a celebration of that miracle.”
I’ve been a so-called frustrated dancer as well as a frustrated concert pianist since my teenage years. I once, recently, told Robert Gardner, the artistic director of the Minnesota Ballet that I lack the technical wherewithal to competently critique a ballet performance. And, that’s true. I know what beauty is to me when I see it with my eyes and feel it in my soul, but I can’t bring myself to critique the steps the dancers are taking on stage. Part of me is happy for that. I can sit in the seats and lose myself in what is unfolding before me without the analytical mind’s quick evaluations and without dissecting the movements into something mathematical. At the ballet, I am a true audience member, soaking in spectacles.
But, I’m not ignorant of the undeniable fact that these dancers work long hours and sometimes in pain to make it precise. I know from working in the theatre world how much time it takes to make it look effortless simply because it must look effortless to audiences there for entertainment. But, with dance…with the ballet, it’s such a different animal. The few times I’ve been briefly in the Minnesota Ballet space while dancers were rehearsing or taking lessons, I’ve seen the intense concentration, the repetition of movement until it’s just right, and the firm but graceful instruction by Robert Gardner.
The Nutcracker is a tradition. And, for as long as I can remember, the story has captivated my imagination, even into adulthood. The music is delicate and longing and frivolous. This year was my third year seeing it performed in Duluth and I will never tire of it. I’ve been asked why I would continue to go year after year and my simple reply is, “It’s The Nutcracker. It’s Tchaikovsky. It’s the dance of the sugar plum fairy. It’s ballet.” The Minnesota Ballet’s Manhattan themed performance is a jewel box of an experience at Symphony Hall. As a person whose life is infused with the appreciation of aesthetics, I can’t express the kind of joy I get when the music starts and the beautiful scrim is lit, awaiting for it to fly up and reveal the beautiful yet simple scenery that frames the story.
When I was a child, I used to dream about the kind of fantastical experiences Clara has in the hours after the world goes to sleep and when the sun rises on a new, spectacular day. And then, of course, there are the dancers. If you’ve never been to a ballet, The Nutcracker is certainly an enchanting point of entry. And one of the beautiful things about ballet is the silence. Aside from the accompanying music, the story is told through movement, and, as Martha Graham has implied, there are miracles in it. Going to the ballet is an experience in active visual participation from the grandest movements and leaps to the most intricate and delicate steps that can be accomplished on the points of one’s toes. Those are the technical moments that wow me. I watch the long lines of the dancers’ bodies as they pull themselves up to their heights and when they seem to defy regular human gravity as if they could dance, literally, on the head of a pin.
The Nutcracker’s vignettes of dances from around the globe with the Minnesota Ballet dancers in brilliant costumes set amid even more brilliantly colored sets takes me to an interior place where dreams once were the finer points of a carefree existence. As each moment progressed and as the scenes changed, I looked, from time to time, to a small boy in the row in front of me, perched on his mother’s lap, eyes wide, mouth agape with wonder and smiled with the satisfaction of knowing that the child would experience this ballet in a way no adult can ever again once the daily realities of work, relationships, bills, and responsibility seep into consciousness. It is that mystical place between slumber and awareness, where toys rule the world, where fairies dance under the beams of moonlight and flakes of falling snow, where enchantment washes cynicism away to the gutters of a city that is a concrete jungle by day and a land of beautiful grace under the blue hues of night.
And all this, on a stage, where dancers betray the spaces between their feet and the world beneath them, where their arms reach higher than the hours of reality allow mere mortals to tread during their humdrum lives, and where beauty is celebrated, validated, and created for its own sake.
That’s ballet that defies the critical eye. Or maybe I’m just a romantic writer fleeing into Clara’s fantasy, again, after all these years. Whatever the case may be, the child in you that needs these worlds and these stories beckons you to the ballet. And the adult that embraces grace and beauty and even craves it, demands your presence. And then we dance.